Two weeks ago, the author of an article in The Jewish Press called the new “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum “extraordinary” and said it is “well worth a visit.” Leading Holocaust scholars, however, have found that it distorts major aspects of Holocaust history and whitewashes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Jews.
The exhibit begins by describing how some American Jews responded to the rise of Nazism by boycotting German goods and opposing U.S. participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. There is no mention of President Roosevelt’s opposition to the boycott or his insistence on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s.
Incredibly, the exhibit defends FDR’s refusal from 1933 to 1938 to publicly criticize Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. A text panel claims that “the accepted rules of international diplomacy obliged [other countries] to respect Germany’s right to govern its own citizens and not intervene on behalf of those being targeted.”
Obliged to respect Hitler’s brutality? Presidents Van Buren, Buchanan, and Grant protested the mistreatment of Jews in Syria, Switzerland, and Romania, respectively. Theodore Roosevelt protested the persecution of Romanian Jews. The U.S. government, under President William Taft, canceled a Russo-American treaty to protest Russia’s oppression of Jews. There was ample precedent for Franklin D. Roosevelt to act; he chose not to.
The exhibit overflows with material concerning anti-Semitism, nativism, and isolationism in America in the 1930s. According to the exhibit, FDR could do little or nothing to help the Jews in the face of such strong public sentiment. It fails, though, to explain that he could have aided Jewish refugees without provoking a public controversy – by quietly allowing the existing German immigration quota to be filled.
Yet, Roosevelt permitted that quota to be fully utilized in only one of his 12 years in office. In most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled, leaving 190,000 quota places from Germany (and later, German-occupied countries) unused.
The exhibit does not mention that according to the existing law, clergy (rabbis and cantors), as well as professors and students, could have been admitted to the U.S. without regard to number. There is no mention of the proposals for admitting refugees temporarily to U.S. territories such as Alaska or the Virgin Islands. There is no mention of the Virgin Islands governor’s offer to open its doors or the proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to use the islands as a haven for the passengers on the infamous refugee ship, the St. Louis.
Acknowledging these options would have undermined the exhibit’s theme of a weak, almost helpless Roosevelt who supposedly had no choice but to follow – rather than lead – public opinion. The exhibit makes it seem as if FDR was a prisoner of immigration regulations imposed by the Hoover administration. The fact that the Roosevelt administration imposed a mountain of extra immigration requirements and burdens is simply omitted from the exhibit.
One notorious example the exhibit ignores concerns German-Jewish visa applicants who presented a ketubah as evidence of their marital status. These people had been married in a religious ceremony only, found it impossible to obtain evidence of their marriage from a Nazi government office, or had been married in Russia before the Soviet takeover and could not enter the USSR to retrieve the necessary documentation. U.S. consular officials, however, refused to recognize a ketubah as proof of marriage, and therefore deemed the applicants’ children “illegitimate” and rejected their applications on the grounds of low moral character.
Incredibly, the exhibit does not include even a single word about refugee advocate James G. McDonald, who was the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, and then chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. In recent years, scholars have documented McDonald’s strong criticism of FDR’s refugee policy and the president’s pattern of breaking his promises to McDonald. Perhaps that explains why McDonald is missing from the museum’s version of history.
Rescue Was Possible
As the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit moves into the 1940s, the period of mass murder, it becomes harder for the curators to credibly portray FDR as weak. After all, he was leading the Allies in a world war. So now the argument shifts, and the exhibit claims rescue was virtually impossible. “With America at war, Jews seeking to emigrate had almost no chance to escape,” a panel declares.
That is a severe distortion of the historical record. In fact, Hitler’s Europe was far from hermetically sealed during the war. For example, more than 26,000 European Jews reached British Mandatory Palestine during 1941-1944. Some 27,000 Jewish refugees escaped to Switzerland and were granted haven during the war years (and tens of thousands more reached the Swiss border but were turned back). More than 7,000 Danish Jews were smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Denmark to safety in Sweden in 1943. Thousands more fled to Spain and Italy.
Many proposals for rescue advocated at the time are simply left out of the exhibit. For example, some people proposed rescuing refugees with empty troop transport ships returning from Europe. These ships were too light to sail and had to be weighed down with ballast (rocks and chunks of concrete). Rescue activists pointed out that Jewish refugees could serve the same purpose. But the exhibit doesn’t mention that.
The exhibit concludes with the events leading to the creation, in 1944, of the War Refugee Board. According to the exhibit, Secretary Morgenthau informed FDR about the State Department’s obstruction of rescue opportunities and – presto! – the big-hearted president created the War Refugee Board.
Viewers have no way of knowing that he established it only reluctantly, under strong political pressure, or that that FDR gave it only token funding; 90 percent of the board’s budget was provided by Jewish organizations.
One of the War Refugee Board’s major projects was to convince the president to grant temporary haven to hundreds of thousands of refugees for the duration of the war. An April 1944 Gallup poll – commissioned by the White House to test the waters – found 70 percent of the public in favor of that proposal. Yet, virtually no action was taken.
Polls are a central part of the exhibit. They prove the depth of anti-Semitism and anti-immigration sentiment that the exhibit claims tied FDR’s hands. Scattered through the exhibit, there are nine large, lit boxes, each featuring a poll question; the viewer turns the box around to see the results. They all show strong opposition to immigration. Yet, that April 1944 poll on providing temporary haven to refugees is not shown.
After all, it would reflect poorly on President Roosevelt, who granted haven to just 982 refugees in 1944. Viewers would realize that the president’s hands were not completely tied, after all.
The Holocaust Museum exhibit also severely distorts the Roosevelt administration’s rejection of requests to bomb Auschwitz or the railways and bridges leading to the death camp. It simply leaves out what is probably the most important fact in this episode – that the War Department falsely claimed it had undertaken a “study” of the feasibility of such a bombing and concluded it wasn’t feasible. In fact, no evidence has ever been found to indicate there was any such a study.
Yet the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit is silent on this matter. Instead, the relevant panel states only that Jewish organizations proposed bombing, and “the US War Department, in response, declared the bombing ‘impracticable’ and a ‘diversion’ from operations ‘essential to the success of the war.’ ”
In media interviews in recent months, one of the exhibit’s curators, Rebecca Erbelding, tried to pour cold water on the idea of bombing the railways to Auschwitz on the grounds that the Nazis were “repairing train lines fairly quickly.” That argument is specious. Even a brief disruption of the deportations would have been significant. At its peak, 12,000 Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz every day. Any interruption would have saved lives.
Unfortunately, the exhibit and its curators are too caught up in making excuses for President Roosevelt to acknowledge these facts. But making excuses for FDR should not be part of the mission of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A detailed 70-page analysis about the exhibit, “Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust,” by eight leading Holocaust scholars can be viewed online at www.WymanInstitute.org. Printed copies may be requested by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org